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Up and Down. An Expat’s Journey.

You have handed in your notice, said your goodbyes, bags are packed, now you are ready for your new adventure in Germany. As you enter your Lufthansa flight, your psyche reaches for a strong glass of courage. A cocktail of emotions, a dose of excitement, a pinch of doubt and a sprinkle of fear. You are leaving, on a jet plane, bound for a country you have never set foot in. The encouraging words of friends, families and well wishers echo in your head, reiterating what an amazing experience you will have living in another country. You have devoured all of the travel books on Germany even managed to secure a few German words under your belt. But, as many have told you, “Everyone speaks English in Germany” so you are optimistic and determined to make the best of it. Off you go contemplating all the fun of beer drinking at Oktoberfest or racing on the no speed limit autobahn. But, what the travel books fail to mention, is the emotional rollercoaster which awaits you. Even if you are squeamish or fearful of amusements rides, this is one, you can’t escape if you are an expat living in Germany.

Kalervo Oberg a world-renowned anthropologist suggested that going abroad for work puts you through four distinct stages. He explained these are feelings common to those facing their first cross-cultural experience. In doing so, he referred to the first stage as the honeymoon phase. This is where all encounters in the new country are viewed as exciting and positive. There is a sense of curiosity and openness with a readiness to accept the unknown. The rose-coloured glasses are securely placed as minor irritations and annoyances are suppressed so not to interrupt the high of the honeymoon. Amazing! Fresh bread available on a Sunday morning piping hot straight from the oven, thanks to the German bakery on the corner of your street, and the assortment of cheese, glad I am not lactose intolerant you think. Those days idling away behind a steering wheel stuck in traffic are gone as you hop on your bike, or catch a tram on those rainy days. You start to think this is a great life, one which I could really get used to. However, like all good things, similar to your honeymoon in Hawaii, they have to end. When you are a freelance expat, that drop from the warm and fuzzy feeling of wonderment can be a downward spiral sending you straight to a lawyer to file for divorce. The bread no longer has its novelty factor once you realize the inconvenience that fresh bread from 8am to 12 is the only grocery product you can buy on a Sunday. The beer, the bread, the cheese and the vast quantities of pork sausages have begun to make tell tale signs around your waist. Those rose-coloured glasses are nowhere to be found and the few child-like German words you have are of no use when trying to process a work permit.

Oberg coined the second stage as culture shock. It rears it’s ugly head causing a slew of symptoms to appear; negativity, discomfort towards the country, the inhabitants, the job and colleagues. You are in a funk and everything seems to get on your nerves. If you are travelling solo, then you have no-one to bounce this discontentment off. If your spouse and children have accompanied you, then you have their funk as well as your own to deal with. Every person is different so culture shock can hit us at varying times. However, in my work with expats, it appears that freelance workers exit the honeymoon phase at a faster pace than company members. This might be because large multinationals usually have a support system in place for their international worker. Assistance is provided in organizing cumbersome tasks such as finding housing, dealing with lengthy paper work and buying a kitchen. While the freelance worker is basically on their own trying to make sense of it all. Their chances of coming into conflict with bureaucratic minefields is far greater than the international assignee. You have come to work, willing and ready yet at every junction, you are faced with unsurmountable obstacles: rules. Although some of these rules appear to defy logic they are ones which you need to wrap your head around, and in a hurry, as your existence depends on it. On the one side, the freedom allocated for freelance workers is a plus point, but the financial insecurity can be a great hinderance. Not knowing the specific requirements on how to write an invoice in German or where to go to apply for a tax number can send you into a tailspin.

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Some clients admitted that they had not anticipated the impact of culture shock and underestimated how deep it could affect them. Seasoned travellers may think that they will weather the storm, but the fact of the matter is, vacationing in a country is completely different to living in one. One client confided in me saying that the only culture shock he was aware of, was his repulsion to seeing Germans eat raw meat with onions on a roll for breakfast. The idea that a larger scope of emotions is at play was something he did not consider or was even aware of. This is due to the assumption that culture shock is viewed more on a tangible level rather than on an intangible level, and that it can occur in combination of factors rather than just a solitary incident. For example, a usual occurrence happens when one moves to a new country, we begin to draw comparisons between our home country and Germany, unbeknownst to us that this elicits feelings and ideas that we could have never anticipated, because we were never in this position before. In our home country we were not forced to examine the way things are done, as our culture is a given. Trompenurs, talks about it in his book ‘Riding the Waves of Culture’, we can intellectualize the various definitions of culture, but at the end of the day, in it’s simplest form it is defined as ‘The way things are done around here’. A modest definition, yet the ability to grasp and accept a new culture is something which many expats struggle with on a daily basis.

Yet, there is a rainbow, off in the distance is the third and fourth phase; recovery and adjustment. It usually starts with accepting that we have a problem and that we have to work on it. It is an adjustment period which involves a compromise between our exaggerated expectations and reality. Here is where a trusted friend comes in handy. You might not be able to physically meet a friend down at the pub for a necessary beer but nowadays the advancement of technology helps expediate the recovery period. What would we do without facetime, skype or messenger? This chance to connect immediately with friends and family is a valuable asset as they can offer encouraging words to help put life back into perspective. Taking the initiative to find out about social groups specifically targeting the expat worker, or splinter groups more focused on freelance expats will also aid in the recovery and adjustment process. In meeting other expats this may help more than a trusted friend back home, as another expat who is situated in your city has a deeper insight on exactly what you face, and therefore, is able to provide much needed advice and support fitting to your situation.

The adjustment phase illustrates a mood change for the better, life starts to take on a more familiar hue, as our environment becomes a part of our comfort zone. The euphoria of the honeymoon phase has been replaced with a more realistic approach to our life in Germany. Rules, and obstacles are still very much present in our daily life, yet time, and support from others has allowed us to develop survival strategies in coping with them. This isn’t to say that a level of culture shock is no longer present, it remains within us because we can not alter our upbringing, our cultural influences and values, they are a part of our DNA. However, in encountering a new culture which conflicts with our notion of logic, processes, manners, time, and space, dialogue has furnished us the luxury of comparison which illustrates not only the differences but also the similarities.

Moving to Germany isn’t top of the bucket list for many people; nevertheless, a motley crew of people find themselves here facing various dilemmas. Oberg’s four phases describes the distinct emotions one feels when they go abroad for the first time for work. In becoming aware of the four phases of our journey, we gain a sense of empowerment because we are able to label what we feel, and to see that we are not actually alone on this rollercoaster ride.

Author: Heidi Kincaid